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Bill looks to cut local mandates

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth tells a House committee on Monday about benefits of establishing a commission to look at how to best run local governments. With him is House researcher Steve Hinze. (Don Davis/St. Paul Bureau)

ST. PAUL - The recession means local governments have less money available to spend, but some Minnesota lawmakers say reducing things the state requires local officials to do can save money.

"Now is the time to provide some relief," Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said.

A House local government committee Monday night approved a Lanning bill that would eliminate holding an annual truth in taxation hearing and allow counties to adopt four-day workweeks. It would establish a commission to review other mandates.

The measure, which passed on a voice vote and heads to other committees, also would repeal limits on how much local governments can raise taxes.

Lanning said the bill provides flexibility to local governments, which face lower state aid and a tougher time raising local property taxes in a time when the economy is hurting.

One of the most controversial points is eliminating truth in taxation hearings, the meetings in which local governments invite citizens to comment on their budgets.

"It gives citizens the impression we can change things," said Lanning, who was Moorhead mayor 22 years.

However, he added, by the time the hearings are held in December, budgets already must be completed for the next year.

Truth in taxation statements, which show taxpayers how much they pay to each governmental body, still would be mailed out under the bill. However, Lanning said, taxpayers would be invited to meetings earlier in the budget process.

The provision was weaker than some wanted. Lanning said a committee working on the bill decided against eliminating the requirement to publish truth in taxation notices in local newspapers "because of the controversy that would come from that."

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, convinced the committee to remove part of the bill that he said could have allowed local governments to circumvent union negotiations on some insurance issues.

In a related issue, the committee Monday passed a bill by Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, that would establish a statewide council to encourage local government innovation.

Marquart said the measure is "looking at improving efficiencies" by encouraging governments to share their best ideas with each other.

"In this type of budget crunch, it would be a benefit to all," he said.